Diversifying medicine

DO advocates for diversity in medicine, works toward justice and equality

Through Project Diversify Medicine, Ashley Denmark, DO, is a champion for underrepresented medical students and DOs.


This month, we are excited to introduce you to Ashley Denmark, DO, who is a champion for the underrepresented and is a strong proponent of diversity in medicine. Her nontraditional path to osteopathic medicine is a story that started in a hospital kitchen and resulted in Dr. Denmark becoming a family medicine physician.

She graduated from Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine Carolinas in Spartanburg (VCOM-Carolinas) and completed her family medicine residency in South Carolina. Through Dr. Denmark’s organization, Project Diversify Medicine, and children’s book series Olivia’s Doctor Adventures, she is trying to bridge the gap by placing more underrepresented minorities in medical school.

Dr. Denmark’s medical journey includes several moments making history as the first Black female in her space. Wanting to be a doctor since childhood, she would not let up on this dream and ended up on her distinct path to medicine. Her account is one of hard work and perseverance. Let’s dive further into Dr. Denmark’s story and her work for justice and equality in medicine.

Tell us about your journey into medical school.

Well, I am from St. Louis, Missouri. Since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a pediatrician. My father was a carpenter and my mother worked for the state. No one in my family has ever been to medical school, so I was in uncharted waters. I completed undergrad at Spelman College. After graduating Spelman, I didn’t take the MCAT right away and had to take it a few times. Not ready to give up on my dream, I decided to pack my things up and move out to Boston to complete a post-baccalaureate program. While in Boston, I went to Harvard to complete some of my classes and this was an awesome experience. After Boston, I went on to complete a special master’s program (SMP) at Tulane University in neuroscience. I really wanted to go to VCOM, so I applied and I interviewed at the Virginia campus.

There were a lot of “firsts” in your medical journey, from being the first Black female to graduate from VCOM Spartanburg to being the first Black female family medicine doctor at your hospital. What does this mean to you?

I didn’t plan it that way, honestly. I was just going to medical school. For me, it was like, I want to go to VCOM, and it went that way. But I believe it’s because it’s a lot about being a minority. A good amount of us will make firsts in these spaces. I didn’t think I would be one of the first Black females to graduate from VCOM-Spartanburg. Then I looked at other students and doctors I worked with, and they’re like, “I’m the first Black anesthesiologist down in South Carolina at MUSC or I’m the first surgeon down here who looks like me.”

I worked for a hospital in their kitchen. After residency, I came back to work for them as a family physician. The hospital has been around for 130 years. I found myself as their first Black female family doctor. So, there’s a lot of us who are making history. That’s why I want to redefine how we can look at our journey. A good deal of us are history makers. Instead of us thinking like, “Oh, my gosh. This is horrible. I’m not doing well,” we have to remember that we are in uncharted territory. We must not think of our tough journey in a negative light.

Share with us how Project Diversify Medicine came to be and what it is trying to accomplish.

I started Project Diversify Medicine (PDM) in 2016. It was the summer of my intern year of residency. I was in South Carolina, and I was like, “Where are the Black doctors? There’s no one here that looks like me.” That was the catalyst that started it. I came with this idea, and it was a project to me to have more Black and brown folks in the medical field, hence the name. I started an Instagram for PDM.

I think that with the evolution of any Black/brown doctor who goes into this field, you may start off with this approach of being a doctor to the world, but life starts giving you experiences through different lenses, and you’re like, “Okay, we must talk about this. We have to speak out and we can’t let this happen.” These harsh life experiences do change you. They caused me to become bolder and to beat the drum louder on inequities and racism in medicine. Again, these negative experiences aren’t affecting everyone in medicine, but it’s certain things we are seeing, because it’s allowed to happen. It should never happen.

It starts with the basics at PDM of helping premed students fill out an application. Looking back, we didn’t have that resource. My goal for PDM was to provide affordable and accessible resources to the underrepresented minorities in medicine. I realized how important it is for us to have those resources that we didn’t have. I feel we’ve done some great work at PDM.

Among your many accomplishments, you’re also an author. Tell us more about your children’s book series, Olivia’s Doctor Adventures.

Yes, it’s about my first child, my baby girl, Olivia. It was my first year in residency and my husband called me, as I’m driving on the road, and he said, “I think Olivia is having a seizure.” I came to find out it was a brain bleed. She had a cavernous malformation that had ruptured.

Initially, the doctors thought she just hit her head and that’s what caused the brain bleed. After questioning the diagnosis and help from some amazing doctors, we knew what really caused the bleed and had it removed. She ended up having brain surgery right before Christmas.

During her hospital stay, which was at the same hospital I was completing my residency, I would come to her floor and visit/care for her. She would ask me, “Why does everyone call you doctor?” I told her “Because I am a doctor.” She then asked, “Why don’t you write a book about being a doctor?” I was not interested at the time, but my daughter is very persistent and very independent.

We wrote this book to try to help explain the different types of doctors in the medical field. It empowered children and even parents to know what doctors children are going to. I didn’t realize some children want to be a pulmonologist at age 4. You don’t know how to aspire to be something that’s never given to you. It was a great opportunity to bring the book to life and bring it to homes everywhere.

Please share an experience that helped mold you into the person you are today.

I think what motivated me the most was going to medical school while pregnant. I interviewed at VCOM and two days later found out I was pregnant. I was like, “What’s going on in the universe? What happened?” I was happy, but I was crying. I told myself, “It’s going to be fine.” Then I would tell myself, “It’s not going to be fine.” Many emotions went through my head.

I went online to Student Doctor Network, looking to find someone who is in my situation and looks like me. I literally looked at all the student pages and found one or two people who said they were pregnant, but they already had children by the time they went to med school. I found no advice, so I just thought that no one goes to medical school pregnant.

My husband and I took a leap of faith, and we went to VCOM. I kept it a secret from the school and my future classmates at first. I came down to Spartanburg before medical school started at 30 weeks pregnant. I started school on Aug. 11 and delivered the baby on Aug. 30. That whole process of having a baby in medical school and being a new mom changed me and made me more resilient. If I could get through that moment where I was vomiting on the floor and was a swollen wreck while pregnant in medical school, I can make it through anything. If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger when you get through it.

What’s next for the trailblazing Dr. Denmark?

I am focused on establishing a hotline for racism in medicine. The hotline will try to help people have a space to talk when they experience racism. A lot of people are being silent on this issue, especially in residency where you are just trying to train, get along, and fit in. We’re seeing that Black doctors, who only represent 5% of the resident physicians, represent 20% of those who are fired. These are 2015 stats.

We definitely have to amplify our voice in that space, because people are losing whole careers and they’re falling silent because of the notion, “I’m going to just be quiet and hope that I get a job.” We realized we needed to shine a light on that. That’s becoming our work. How can we avoid those things? A lot of people can’t. And those who do stand up for themselves, they’re sometimes retaliated against. We want to create a safe space and use our platform to help bring light to these issues.

We definitely have to amplify our voice in that space, because people are losing whole careers and they’re falling silent because of the notion, “I’m going to just be quiet and hope that I get a job.” We realized we needed to shine a light on that. That’s becoming our work. How can we avoid those things? A lot of people can’t. And those who do stand up for themselves, they’re sometimes retaliated against. We want to create a safe space and use our platform to help bring light to these issues.

Related reading:

The power of social media: Latina DO uses her following to champion diversity

Q&A: OMM pioneer and longtime advocate for osteopathic medicine shares tales from a 50-year career


    1. Lawrence Leyba, D.O.

      I agree with Dr. Altic. “Diversity” and WOKE ideology have no place in medical education. Quality of education for competent students is a must for justification of a DO degree. Social diversity has no place in preparing students for providing healthcare to the public. As a founder and board member of Western University for 25 years and I always defended having high academic standards for professors and students.

  1. Larry Neal Lyle

    Diversity is one of the tetrad of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Diversity is easily accomplished if medical schools and residency programs choose to implement diversity measures. Equity, inclusion, and belonging are much more difficult to accomplish and measure. Also diversity encompasses much broader areas than race, e.g. sexual orientation, disability, neurodiversity, etc.

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